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Last Updated: Monday, 11 October, 2004, 11:43 GMT 12:43 UK
Technology's gender balancing act
Dot.life - where technology meets life, every Monday
By Jo Twist
BBC News Online science and technology staff

Woman using a laptop and other technologies
Women are demanding more from technology
Technology has come a long way since the washing machine, but somewhere along the line it lost relevance to women. Now gadget makers are striving to win back the female market.

Women's spending power is growing faster than men's, making the female of the species the number one target for technology companies which want to sell more gadgets.

The trend for tailoring tech to the lucrative female market found its way into the spate of recent "fashion weeks" in London, Paris and New York.

Designer Roland Mouret, working with Intel, unveiled interchangeable laptop "skins" (adding a funky touch to otherwise dull notebooks) and large LCD monitors that doubled up as handbags.

One of Roland Mouret's laptop skin designs (Image: Intel)
Roland Mouret designed changeable skins for laptops
Nokia, meanwhile, has just released the latest of its "fashion phones". The 7260 is inspired by the "glamour of the roaring 20s" and includes a "clothing and shoe size converter for the true fashionista". Thank goodness for that.

Elsewhere, one can pick up lipstick memory sticks, mini iPods in pastel hues, mobiles with mirrors in them, and slim cameras, all intended to pull at the purse strings of women.

But there is a fine line between making technologies appeal to wider audiences and patronising that audience with devices that look pretty but do not do much.

'Canaries in the mine'

Genevieve Bell, anthropologist in residence for Intel, thinks it's high time technology companies thought more explicitly about those who do not fit the young, male, middle class stereotype.

And it's the growing buying power and desires of women that are changing how gadgets are being designed as well as marketed.

Women, she muses, are like the "canary birds of the technological mineshaft". If it doesn't work for them, it'll probably fail in the mass market.

"I think there is this notion that the kind of population of people using technology is broader than ever before," she says.

Nokia's 7260 (Image: Nokia)
Nokia's "fashion phones" include a clothes size converter
"They [women] are bringing natural differences, desires, form factors."

Clearly women are not just interested in pretty, shiny objects. But more demanding women entering the technology market have highlighted the crucial role of design.

"We are starting to think about the people who use the technology far more explicitly. We are thinking about users beyond western nations and a wider notion of universal acceptability," says Dr Bell.

But the technology industry is still trying to work out how to wrap diverse desires into an appealing package, and how to accommodate different perceptions about what an object should do.

Blog on

Perhaps the technology does not need to be different, just the language that explains and sells it. Women's magazines, for instance, don't tend to run gadget reviews. Many women feel alienated by technology magazines because of the marketing and imagery used.

Some have turned to weblogs, edited by women, for a more straightforward look at the latest shiny things.

Family 1950s
Tuning the wireless: A man's role in the 1950s
Mia Kim, editor of Popgadget, welcomes the recognition that technology companies are giving to women, but is unhappy about what they think women want.

"Their solution is to do things like add mirrors to cell phones, make things pink, instead of really dealing with the issue of not marketing to women and not having media or retail outlets that are women friendly."

Ultimately, women are probably the harder sell, she thinks. They want to know how something works before they buy it.

"It is not enough to just say it's the fastest, it's the biggest. I think women want more substance than that. They're thinking, 'okay, it's fast, I get it, but what does it actually do?'."

Katie Lee, editor of another blog, Shiny Shiny, sees a more complicated picture, because it's "hard to generalise about women".

"Yes we do want nice things, but there is also a nice thing about having gadgets that are simple. I think they understand it does not have to have all the bells and whistles to appeal."

Which is perhaps why unassuming gadgets, like Apple's iPod, take on such iconic status.

By women, for people

Nowhere is the legacy of technology designed by men for men more apparent than in cars, where it's been going on for 100 years.

The YCC Volvo
The YCC was designed by women and for people
Lena Ekelund, engineer and leader of the all-women team behind the YCC Volvo, Your Concept Car, says the technology industry needs to look beyond preconceptions.

"They are stereotyping in a way that is not necessarily accurate. They should be focusing on making user-friendly products, because that is what we did with the car. We had a look at what functionality would improve your life."

The YCC was not designed specifically for women, she stresses, but for "people".

The fact that it looks so different and has oodles of storage space for bags, mobiles, as well as removable, customisable seat covers has nothing to do with the fact it was designed by an all-woman team.

"The way we approached it showed there is absolutely no need to gender-tailor products," says Ms Ekelund.

Women and men both wanted high performance.

One of the lessons learned was that things are often made too hi-tech for customers. Ultimately, there is room for all sorts of markets - including niche markets which cater for extreme nerds - male and female.

"It is perhaps not a matter of the technology itself," says Dr Bell, "It is what you imagine it would be good for doing - the value proposition."

The laptop skins designed for Intel, for example, stretch beyond gender to personification, says Dr Bell.

Mia Kim sketches some basic lessons that technology firms would do well to abide by.

"Ask women what they want, design the products that appeal to women and then make the effort to get the word to women through channels that are friendly to women - most technology publications definitely are not."

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